William Saliba: The immense challenge facing Arsenal man at Nice
Signed by the Emirates club in the summer of 2019 for a reported fee of £27 million, Saliba has yet to debut for the Gunners, managing just a couple of Papa John’s Trophy outings with the Under-23 side as well as six games in Premier League 2.
The centre-back failed to win the confidence of Gunners boss Mikel Arteta, who had suggested the defender lacked the readiness to feature in the Premier League.
“I explained that he needed that transition year when we decided to buy him and send him on loan to Saint-Etienne. For many reasons, that didn’t happen – he didn’t have that transition year and he needs to go through that,” Arteta explained in November.
The former Spain midfielder subsequently indicated that the 19-year-old had “made massive improvements” amid a “really tricky” situation, but the logical outcome was always heading towards a loan deal.
Nice’s defensive problems
Saliba, though, finds himself hurtling towards a very difficult situation on the Cote d’Azur.
Nice were tipped as likely European challengers this season but in reality are foundering in the middle of the table. They are 12th in the standings and the sacking of head coach Patrick Vieira, another former Arsenal man, has not provided the electric shock treatment the board may have wished. Only one win and two draws have followed in the six games since he departed.
In particular, Nice’s leaky defence has undermined their progress.
Since a serious injury to Dante, their keystone figure in the rearguard, they have conceded a flood of goals. Those 11 games have seen them concede them 22 times.
Dante provided Nice primarily with two things in their defence. Firstly, he was the dominant figure in the air for his club. Since he has gone, Nice have been very vulnerable from crossed balls, and set pieces in particular.
Furthermore, he gave them leadership, which they otherwise lack.
Saliba is expected to come in and plug both gaps.
William Saliba snapshot:
Aerially, he should fill the void. During the 2019/20 season, which he spent on loan at Saint-Etienne before the season was abridged due to the coronavirus crisis, he won around 60% of the aerial duels he attempted. And that was despite being hampered by injury.
What may prove more difficult for the teenager, however, is slotting in to become the leader of the defence.
After nearly a year without any first-team football to speak of, and his confidence doubtless rocked by his experience at Arsenal, he has a big task on his hands in rousing those around him.
At just 19, he is Nice’s second most experienced defender in terms of French matches played. Alongside him, Robson Bambu and Falvius Daniliuc do not even speak good French.
Meanwhile, the confidence of fellow defender Stanley Nsoki looks low. The same can also be said for goalkeeper Walter Benitez, who has looked far from his best this term, having previously been touted for Argentina honours.
Saliba arrives in Nice in the midst of a difficult context and the club are placing a great deal of faith in him. If he can help shore up his new side, he will have put beyond doubt questions over his mentality.